Their comic waddle and distinctive black and white plumage have delighted mankind ever since these unique flightless birds were first discovered.
But now penguins from a remote South Atlantic island are in the unlikely position of being at the centre of an international row threatening to embarrass the Foreign Office.
Towards the end of last year, controversial South African wildlife dealer John Visser sailed to the remote British-controlled island of Tristan da Cunha and captured more than 240 rockhopper penguins, which he has been selling for about 4,000 each to zoos in China, Malaysia and Japan.
Conservationists are outraged, as rockhoppers, they claim, are a vulnerable and endangered species. As a British dependent territory, Tristan da Cunha and its population of 300 people are under the rule of the Foreign Office which - to the fury of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds - gave the green light to the trade.
As part of the deal, Visser donated 25,000 to the island. He strongly defends his actions, saying the penguin population - some 30,000 - is too high to be affected by the loss of 240 birds. But some experts believe even a small reduction could have a sharp impact on the survival of the birds, who rely on numbers to survive attacks from sharks and seals.
The RSPB expressed 'amazement' that Ministers sanctioned the shipment of wild penguins, initially to South Africa. 'Penguins are a threatened species which in some areas are vulnerable to extinction. Taking more than 200 adult birds that are potential breeders could have far-reaching consequences. We are amazed and dumbfounded that the Foreign Office could sanction such a deal,' said a RSPB spokesman.
He added: 'There would be an outrage if somebody landed on one of the Scottish islands and captured the puffins. It simply would not be allowed, so why have Ministers allowed it to happen on Tristan da Cunha?'
Animal rights groups are also concerned at the treatment of the penguins, who faced long journeys by ship and plane. At least three animals have died so far in transit, and in Malaysia 20 were delivered to an aquarium by ice-cream trucks to ensure the temperature was low enough.
A Malaysian environmental group has also condemned the trade. A spokesman for Sahabat Alam Malaysia said: 'What is inconceivable is that these penguins were plucked from the wild on Tristan de Cunha and transported thousands of miles to a place and land totally alien to their own habitat. We are concerned about the stress during capture and transportation of these wild birds ... it is doubtful whether all the birds will live to see a zoo visitor.'
Visser has also had to defend the conditions in which the penguins were kept at his South African aquarium while awaiting transit to zoos.
Crystal Hartley, a South African penguin expert, said: 'They are being kept on a cement floor, a sure way for them to get bumblefoot. His people carry them by one flipper, which is harmful. They are very stressed.'
But Visser told The Observer: 'I am a qualified zoologist and these penguins, which are treated excellently, go on to world-class zoos which have fantastic modern facilities. It is all part of an international captive-breeding campaign to improve the conservation of penguins, not reduce it. While it is true that the penguin population in some parts of the world is decreasing, the population in Tristan da Cunha is extremely healthy and can withstand the loss of a couple of hundred birds.'
An RSPB spokesman said: 'If there was a case for more captive breeding - and we think it is unproven - then they should collect the eggs of penguins, which is less damaging to the population and does not raise the same welfare issues.'
And a spokesman for the Foreign Office said: 'The decision was taken by Tristan's island council and was based on local knowledge. Only 146 pairs of rockhoppers from an estimated population of 50,000 are being removed and so it is unlikely to have any adverse environmental effects and complies with international treaties.'
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